Joseph Smith, the strange founder of America’s most successful home-grown religion, was lynched on this date in 1844 at the jail in Carthage, Illinois.
Mormonism today boasts some 15 million adherents but it all started in the 1820s when Smith, then an energetic young mystic in the revival hotbed of western New York, claimed to have been guided by an angel to plates engraved in a made-up language that only he could translate and only that one time because the plates disappeared back to angelic custody after Smith’s perusal. It will not be news to this site’s LDS readers that few outside the faith place this origin story on the near side of the laugh test, but then, it is the nature of religions to appear ridiculous to outsiders: Christ crucified is unto the Greeks foolishness.
Smith’s heretical story of America as the ancient zone of a literal “New Jerusalem” founded by Israelites with a theretofore unknown gift for transoceanic navigation was certainly a stumbling-block for Protestant American neighbors, who harried from state to state — a practically Biblical sojourn through the desert — the fast-growing community. It came to pass* that the young man’s implausible scripture struck a resonant chord for the young nation.
“It was a really powerful religion,” says John Dolan in an episode of the War Nerd podcast.** “It said, our people have always been here, America is the promised land, you’re at home here. And that meant so much to 19th century Americans.”
The strange new sect’s capacity for punching above its weight in the missionary game also unleashed violently hostile reactions, marrying to its settler theology a compelling lived experience of persecution. The march of the movement across the continent has an astonishing, can’t-make-this-up character — “full of stir and adventure” in Mark Twain’s words, so again a perfect fit for America.
A few books about Joseph Smith
Smith took his fledgling faith from its New York birthplace to Kirtland, Ohio — where he was fortunate to survive a tarring and feathering in 1832 — and then onward to Missouri where a dirty vigilante war led the governor to issue a notorious “extermination order”: “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace.” Scrabbling for a homeland and pursued by a Missouri treason charge (!) Smith ducked over the western border to Illinois and set up a Mormon town called Nauvoo.
The faith was barely a decade old and still struggling to find an equilibrium. While Smith fought the last battle by creating a gigantic militia to protect his flock from the sorts of military attacks it had faced in Missouri — which state still sought Smith’s head in the 1840s — he attained his martyrdom as the fallout of prosaic internal politics. Seeking to suppress schismatic Mormons, Smith in June 1844 ordered the destruction of their critical newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor.†
By now having worn out his welcome with yet another state, the unpopular Smith became the subject of an Illinois arrest warrant as a result of this lawless attack on his rivals. Expecting better treatment than Missouri would have offered him and angling to keep Mormons in an amicable relationship with neighbors, Smith this time chose to turn himself in to face trial for inciting a riot, along with his brother Hyrum Smith and two other Mormon leaders, Willard Richards and John Taylor.‡
But in this case, the law did not take its course.
On the afternoon of June 27, 1844, a mob of 200 armed men stormed the jail in Carthage where the Mormons were held, meeting only token resistance. (Indeed, many of the force assigned to guard the Mormons joined the attackers instead.) They gunned down Hyrum Smith on the spot and drove Joseph Smith — firing back all the while — to a window where a fusillade knocked him out of the second story. His body was shot up and mutilated; one of the numerous accounts of those moments even has it that the corpse was propped up for a summary firing squad “execution.”
Whatever else one could say of Joseph Smith, he forged a community that survived its founder’s death, and is thriving still nearly two centuries on. With Smith’s passing, leadership of the Mormons fell to Brigham Young, who brought the Mormons out of Illinois for their destiny in Utah.
* Smith — or the angel Moroni, if you like — amusingly abuses the portentous clause “it came to pass” in the Book of Mormon, repeating it in about one-fifth of the tome’s verses.
** Also recommended: Dolan’s article on Joseph Smith as an outstanding product of an era of “text-finding” — his book offering pious Americans their greatest desideratum, a national link to God’s Biblical chosen people much like James MacPherson‘s forged Ossian epic thrilled the patriotic fancies of Scots discomfitingly swallowed up into Great Britain.
† The Expositor published only one single issue: the June 7, 1844 edition that caused its immediate suppression and eventually Smith’s death.
‡ Both Richards and Taylor survived the mob attack on Carthage Jail. Taylor in 1880 succeeded Brigham Young as president of the church.
That is certainly not the character in the Pelagius story: that caliph is a tyrannical lout who develops a pederastic infatuation with his young charge (13 years old when martyred) and lusts to conquer him both corporeally and spiritually.
Pelagius spurned all advances and refused inducements to apostatize until the frustrated Moor finally ordered him tortured and dismembered. The year was 925 or so.
He’s the subject of the Latin poem Passio Sancti Pelagii by the German poet Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim (here it is, in Latin). Although she claimed to have obtained the account from an eyewitness to Pelagius’s martyrdom the story’s historicity is very much doubted today. Nevertheless, it has had obvious national-propaganda utility in the land venerating “St. James the Moor-slayer” and has conferred the Spanish version of his name (Pelayo) on a number locations in Spain and the former Spanish empire. Topically for our dark site, Pelagius is also the patron saint of torture victims.
* This saint has no connection to the ancient heresy of Pelagianism or the 4th-5th century British monk for whom it was named.
I have one body
And to you I offer and return it.
Here is my flesh;
Here is my blood;
Let me be slain, reduced to nothing;
Let my bones be split apart
For those for whom I am praying, if such is your will.
This date in 1375 is the best data point we have for the beheading of Niccolo di Toldo.
The Sienese archives offer scant documentation of this political execution; a decree of June 4, 1375 orders his examination for “the discord sowed by him in the city of Siena, pernicious and deadly to the state of the present government” — and a couple of letters on Niccolo’s behalf from the governor of neighboring Perugia. Francis Thomas Luongo in The Saintly Politics of Catherine of Siena — we will come to Catherine presently — next points in lieu of any remaining record of Niccolo’s execution to “the necrology of the Sienese Dominican friary [which] includes an entry for one ‘Nicholaus, familiarius of the Lord Senator,’ who died and was entombed in the cloister of San Domenico on 20 June, the vigil of the feast of Corpus Christi.” It’s not certain that this is the same man but the description fits him, and the date is one week after the last known letter on his behalf from Perugia — which was an appeal for mercy.
We are as ignorant of Niccolo di Toldo’s offense as we are of the date of his death. But his position (in the household of a senator) and his Perugian affiliation suggest him an agent of papal subversion.
Siena’s centuries-long decline from the ranks of Italy’s city-state powers dates ultimately to the Black Death outbreak of 1348. The Plague devastated Siena.
The ensuing generations saw authority in the great Tuscan city furiously contested; the government turned over repeatedly in the 1360s — the Dodici (the Twelve), the Tredici, the Quindici, each an executive committee of interested parties in the coalition of the day.
From the late 1360s and through the 1370s, the Quindici held sway: reformist guild leaders* who were opposed by the the deposed (and by now proscribed) ex-Dodici, Siena’s great magnates in alliance with the papacy. (Luongo delves into Sienese politics in considerable detail in his book.) By year’s end Siena would join a city-state coalition led by Florence that fought a three-year war against the papal states with the excellent name “the War of Eight Saints”.
That coalition and that thrust of policy is likely what a “political subversive” in 1375 Siena would be subverting. And the governor of Perugia appealing to the Sienese for Toldo’s life? He was a French cardinal, kin to Pope Gregory XI.**
Little as we know of Niccolo di Toldo prior to his death, that execution is one of the most famous in all of medieval Europe.
Catherine found Niccolo angry at his impending fate, initially refusing to see any spiritual counselor: no state of mind for a soul to meet its maker. Any of the confraternities tasked at this time with succoring those about to face execution would have been charged with bringing such a person to a condition of resignation and penitence.
Catherine achieved her mission to join the doomed man to God but much, much more than that: her account of their relationship, up to the moment when she ecstatically catches his falling bloody head, is a celebration of erotic mysticism. It’s also one of the most famous episodes of the saint’s life.
Niccolo’s virgin helpmate was herself noted for her mystical “marriage to Christ”: in it, Catherine presented her heart to the phantom Savior, and he his ritually circumcised foreskin to her.
Converging religious fervor and carnality mark her interaction with Niccolo, too; at one point she implies that she has sublimated the condemned traitor’s attraction to her into piety, and (as Catherine wrote a follower),
God’s measureless and burning goodness tricked him, creating in him such an affection and love in the desire of me in God, that he did not know how to abide without God, and he said: ‘Stay with me and do not leave me. Like this I cannot but be alright, and I will die content!’ and he had his head resting on my breast. I sensed an intense joy, a fragrance of his blood, and it was not without the fragrance of my own, which I wait to shed for the sweet husband Jesus.
Catherine saw Niccolo di Toldo only twice in the days leading up to his execution. When he went to the block, she was there to meet him: in fact, she was there early and made bold to occupy the condemned’s place on the scaffold, and to stretch her own neck out over the headsman’s block that her kindred spirit would soon soak in gore. It was as if preparing his bridal bed, where she would embrace Niccolo even as the executioner struck — the two as passionately near to one in soul and body as the logistics of a heavy blade’s arc can permit.
[H]e arrived, as a meek lamb, and seeing me, he began to laugh, and he wanted me to make the sign of the cross. When he received the sign, I said, “Come on! to the nuptials, my sweet brother! for soon you will be in life without end.” He got down with great meekness, and I stretched out his neck, and leaning down, I reminded him of the blood of the Lamb. His mouth said nothing but “Jesus” and “Catherine.” And, as he was saying thus, I received his head in my hands, closing his eyes on divine goodness and saying, “I want this!” (“lo voglio”)†
She clutched to herself the lifeless head that had dropped into her lap and beheld “with the greatest envy” Niccolo’s soul ascending in the martyrdom Catherine aspired to. Afterwards, she was reluctant to wash out the clothes spattered with blood from the sacred climax of death.
The Dominican friar Caffarini, an ally of Catherine who was later to become of the principal exponents of her canonization, wrote of the tableau that Niccolo
accepted death while still at a young age, in the presence of the Virgin and with her receiving his head into her hands, with such marvelous devotion that it was like the transitus of some devout martyr and not the death of one who was condemned for a human crime. And everyone watching among whom I was only one was so moved internally and from the heart that I do not remember any previous burial accompanied with as much devotion as that one.
* Apart from the enmity of the papal party, the powerful guild leaders of the Quindici faced working-class opposition that resulted in a 1378 revolt.
** Gregory XI was the guy who moved the papacy back from Avignon to Rome.
† Translated excerpts culled from snippets and excerpts in various locations. Original Italian versions of Catherine’s poetic letters are available in public-domain Google books here; there’s also a recent English translation by Susan Noffke.
The Martyrdome of VVilliam Seaman, Thomas Carman, and Thomas Hudson, put to death by the persecuting papistes at Norwich in the county of Norfolke.
Immediatly after William Nicole, succeded in that honorable and glorious vocation of Martyrdome three constant godly me[n] at Norwich in Norfolke, who were cruelly and tyrannically put to death for thee true testimony of Iesus Christ, the 19. of May an. 1558. Whose names be these.
The sayd William Seaman was an husbandman, of the age of xxvj. yeares, dwelling in Mendlesham in the county of Suffolke, who was sought for sundry tymes by the commaundement of Syr Iohn Tirrell Knight, and at last hee hym selfe in the night searched hys house and other places for hym: notwithstanding, hee somewhat mist of his purpose, God be thanked. Then he gaue charge to his seruantes, Robert Baulding, and Iames Clarke with others, to seeke for hym. Who hauing no officer, went in the euening to hys house, where he beyng at home, they tooke hym and caryed hym to their master Syr Iohn Tirrell. This Baulding beyng Seamans nigh neighbour, and whom the sayd Seaman greatly trusted as a speciall frend, notwithstandyng to do his Master a pleasure, now became enemy to his chief frend, and was one of the busiest in the takyng of him. Now as they were goyng to cary him to their Master Syr Iohn Tyrrel in the night, it is credibly reported that there fell a light betwene them out of the element and parted them. This Bauldyng beyng in company with the rest whe[n] the light fell, albeit he was then in hys best age, yet after that tyme neuer enioyed good day, but pined away euen vnto the death.
Well, for all that straunge sight (as I sayd) they caried hym to their master. Who when he came, asked hym why he would not go to masse, and receaue the sacrament, and so to worship it? Vnto which William Seaman aunswered, denying it to be a sacrament, but sayde it was an Idoll, and therefore would not receaue it. After which wordes spoken, Syr Iohn Tirrell shortly sent hym to Norwich to Hopton then Byshop, and there, after conference and examination had with him, the Byshop red hys bloudy sentence of condemnation against hym, and afterward deliuered hym to the secular power, who kept hym vnto the day of Martyrdome.
Thys sayd William Seaman left behind him when he dyed, a wife and three children very yonge: and with the sayd younge children, hys wife was persecuted out of the sayd towne also of Mendlesham, because that she would not go to heare Masse, and all her corne & goods seased and taken away by master Christopher Coles officers, he beyng Lord of the sayd towne.
Thomas Carman (who, as is said, pledged Richard Crashfield at hys burning, and thereupon was apprehended) beyng in prison in Norwich, was about one tyme with the rest examined & brought before the sayd Byshop, who aunswered no lesse in hys masters cause then the other, and therefore had the like reward that the other had, which was the Byshops bloudy blessing of condemnation, and deliuered also to the secular power, who kept him with the other vntill the day of slaughter, which hasted on and was not long after.
Thomas Hudson was of Ailesham in Norfolke, by his occupatio[n] a Glouer, a very honest poore ma[n], hauing a wyfe and three children, and laboured alwayes truely and diligently in his vocation, being of thirty yeares of age, and bearing so good a will to the Gospell, that he in the dayes of king Edward thee sixt, two yeares before Queene Maryes raigne, learned to read Englishe of Anthony and Thomas Norgate of the same Towne, wherein he greatly profited about the tyme of alteration of religion. For when Queene Mary came to raigne, and had chaunged the seruice in the church, putting in for wheate, draffe and darnyll, and for good preaching, blasphemous crying out agaynst truth and godlines, he then auoyding all their beggerly Ceremonies of superstition, absented him selfe from his house, and went into Suffolke a long tyme, and there remayned, traueling from one place to an other, as occasion was offered. At the last, he returned backe agayne to Norfolke, to his house at Ailesham, to comfort his wife & hys childre[n], being heauy & troubled with his absence.
Now when he came home, and perceaued his continuaunce there would be daungerous, he and his wife deuised to make hym a place among hys fagots to hyde himselfe in, where he remained all the day (in stede of hys chamber) reading and praying continually, for the space of halfe a yeare, and hys wife like an honest woman being carefull for hym, vsed her self faythfully and diligently towardes him.
In the meane tyme came the Vicar of the towne, named Berry (who was one of the Byshops Commissaryes, a very euill man) and inquired of thys sayd Thomas Hudsons wife for her husband. Vnto whom she aunswered, as not knowing were he was. Then the sayd Berry rated her, & threatned to burne her, for that she would not bewray her husband where he was.
After that, when Hudson vnderstoode it, he waxed euery day more zealous then other, and continually red and sang Psalmes, to the wonder of many, the people openly resorting to hym to heare his exhortations and vehement prayers.
At the last he walked abroad for certayne dayes openly in the Towne, crying out continually agaynst the Masse and all their trompery, and in the end, commyng home in his house, he sat him downe vppon hys knees, hauyng his booke by him, readyng and singyng Psalmes continually without ceassing. for. iij. dayes and iij. nightes together, refusing meate & other talke, to the great wonder of many.
The one Iohn Crouch his next neighbour, went to the Constables Robert Marsham and Robert Lawes in the night, to certifie them therof: for Berry comaunded openly to watch for hym: and þe Constables vnderstadyng the same, went cruelly to catch him in the breake of the day, the., xxij. of the moneth of Aprill. an. 1558.
Now when Hudson saw the come in, he sayd: Now mine houre is come. Welcome frendes welcome: you be they that shall lead me to lyfe in Christ, I thanke God therfore, and the Lord enhable me thereto for his mercies sake. For his desire was, and euer he prayed (if it were the Lordes wil) that he might suffer for the Gospell of Christ. Then they tooke hym, and lead hym to Berry the Commissary, which was Vicare of the Towne, and the sayd Berry asked hym first, where he kept his Church for iiij. yeares before. To the which the sayd Hudson aunswered thus: where soeuer he was, there was the Church.
Doest thou not beleue, saith Berry, in the Sacrame[n]t of the altar? What is it?
Hudson. It is wormes meate: my beliefe (saith he) is in Christ crucified.
Berry. Doest thou not beleue the Masse to put away sinnes?
Hudson. No, God forbid: it is a patched monstre, and a disguised Puppet, more longer a pecing then euer was Salomons temple.
At which wordes Berry stamped, fumed, and shewed him selfe as a mad man, and sayd: well thou villayne, thou: I will write to the byshop my good Lord, and trust vnto it, thou shalt be handled according to thy desertes. Oh syr, sayd Hudson: there is no Lorde but God, though there bee many Lordes and many Gods. With that, Berry thrust him backe with hys hand. And one Richard Cliffar standing by, sayd: I pray you syr, be good to the poore man. At which wordes Berry was more mad then before, and would haue had Cliffar bound in a recognisance of 40. poundes for his good abearing, both in worde and deede: which hys desire tooke no effecte. Then he asked the sayd Hudson whether he would recant or no. Vnto which wordes Hudson sayd: the Lord forbid: I had rather dye many deathes, then to doo so.
Then after long talke, the sayd Berry seing it booted not to perswade with him, tooke his pen and yncke, and wrote letters to the byshop therof, and sent thys Hudson to Norwich bound like a theefe to hym, which was viij. miles from thence, who with ioye and singing chere went thether, as mery as euer he was at any time before. In prison he was a moneth, where he did continually read and inuocate the name of God.
Original illustration via JohnFoxe.org, which notes that depictions of several triple burnings attest to the certainty that the printer had no block to illustrate three men in a fire.
These three christians and constant Martyrs, William Seaman, Thomas Carman, and Tho. Hudson, after they were (as ye haue heard) condemned, the xix. day of May. 1558. were caryed out of prison to þe place where they should suffer, which was without Bishops gate at Norwich, called Lollards pit.
And being all there, they made theyr humble prayers vnto the Lord. That being done, they rose and went to the stake, and standing all there with chaynes about them, immediately thys sayd Thomas Hudson commeth fourth from them vnder the chayne, to the great wonder of many: wherby diuers feared and greatly doubted of him. For some thought he would haue recanted: other iudged rather that hee went to aske a further day, and to desire conference: and some thought he came forth to aske some of hys parentes blessing: So some thought one thing and some an other: but hys two companions at the stake cryed out to hym to comforte hym what they could, exhorting hym in the bowels of Christ to be of good chere. &c. But thys sweete Hudson, felt more in his hart and conscience, then they could conceaue in hym. For (alas good soule) he was compassed (God knoweth) with great dolour and griefe of mind, not for his death, but for lacke of feeling of hys Christ, and therfore beyng very carefull he humbly fell downe vppon his knees, and prayed vehemently and earnestly vnto the Lord, who at the last, according to hys olde mercyes, sent hym comfort, and then rose he with great ioy, as a man new chaunged euen from death to life, and sayd:
Now I thanke God I am strong, and passe not what man can doo vnto me.
So going to the stake to his fellowes agayne, in the end they all suffered most ioyfully, constantly, and manfully the death together, and were consumed in fire, to the terror of the wicked, the comforte of Gods Children, & the magnifiing of the Lords name, who be praysed therfore for euer, Amen.
After thys, the fore named Commissary Berry, made great styrre about other which were suspected within the sayd towne of Aylesham, and caused two hundred to creepe to the Crosse at Penticost, besides other punishmentes which they susteyned.
On a time this Berry gaue a poore man of his parish of Marsham, a blow with the swingell of a flayle, for a word speaking, that presently theron he dyed, and the sayd Berry (as is sayd) held vp his hand at the barre therefore.
Then, after that in his parish of Aylesham also, an. 1557. there was one Alice Oxes came to his house, and going into the Hall, he meting her (being before moued) smote her with his fist, whereby she was fayne to be caryed home, and the next day was found dead in her chamber.
To write how many concubines & whores he had, none would beleue it, but such as knewe him in the countrey he dwelt in. He was rich and of great autoritie, a great swearer, altogether geuen to wemen, and persecuting of the Gospell, & compelling men to idolatry.
One Iohn Norgate a man learned, godly, and zealous, who would not go to theyr trash, but rather dye, being sore hunted by the sayd Berry, prayed hartely to God, and the Lord shortly after in a consumption deliuered hym. Notwithstanding, the rage of this wicked man waxed more fiercer and fiercer. He troubled sundry men, burnt all good bookes that he could get, and diuorsed many men and wemen for religion.
When he heard say that Queene Mary was dead, and the glory of theyr triumph quailed, the sonday after, being the xx. of Nouember, an. 1558. he made a great feast, and had one of his concubines there, with whom he was in his chamber after diner vntill Euensong. Then went he to church, where he had ministred baptisme, and in going from church homeward, after Euensong, betwene the churchyarde and hys house, being but a litle space (as it were a churchyard bredeth asunder) he fell downe sodeinly to the ground with a heauy grone, & neuer stirred after, neither shewed any one token of repentance. This hapned hys neyghbors being by, to the example of all other. The Lord graunt we may obserue his iudgementes.
And those that had his great riches, since his death haue so consumed with them, that they be poorer now then they were before they had his goodes, such iudgement hath the Lord executed to the eyes of all men.
The 18th and last of the “Letters of the Living” comprising the original disciples of the the faith’s founding prophet the Bab, Quddus was a charismatic young mullah of whom it was said that “whoever was intimately associated with him was seized with an insatiable admiration for the charm of the youth.” Denis MacEoin even argues that Quddus’s preaching verged on asserting divinity, and he might have been an incipient rival to the Bab himself for leadership of the new religion.
Under either leader the movement was officially excommunicate to the ulama, and its heretical proselytizing consequently generated no shortage of martyr-making backlash. The backlash in question for this post began with an anti-Baha’i riot in the Mazandaran city of Barfurush (today, Babol) which drove a few hundred adherents to the nearby Shrine of Shaykh Tabarsi where they took refuge behind ad hoc defensive fortifications.
The Persians’ ensuing besiegement of this redoubt constitutes the Battle of Fort Tabarsi — and if the designation sounds a bit exalted for mob control it was dearly earned by the surprising (and to Persia, embarrassing) Baha’i resilience. Under Quddus’s leadership the makeshift fort held out for seven months. Half of those original 18 “Letters of the Living” disciples would die in the engagement — the largest upheaval during those formative years.
At last, having finally been reduced to near-starvation by the encirclement, the Baha’i defenders surrendered on the guarantee of safe passage — a guarantee that was immediately violated, with most of the former “garrison” massacred on the spot on May 10.
Quddus was preserved for special treatment in Barfurush several days later: not judicial execution, but simply handing over to an angry rabble who tore him apart.
The Bab, already imprisoned pending the passion he would suffer the following year, was said to be so devastated at learning of Quddus’s fate that he could scarcely write any longer: “the deep grief which he felt had stilled the voice of revelation and silenced His pen. How deeply He mourned His loss! What cries of anguish He must have uttered as the tale of the siege, the untold sufferings, the shameless betrayal, and the wholesale massacre of the companions of Shaykh Tabarsi reached His ears and was unfolded before His eyes!” (Source)
April 19 was the death date in 1012, and the feast date in perpetuity, of Archbishop of Canterbury and Christian saint Aelfheah (also known as Alfege or Alphege).
When harrying Danish invaders under Thorkell the Tall put Canterbury cathedral to the sack in 1011, they seized this Anglo-Saxon cleric too in expectation of adding a VIP’s ransom to their sacrilegious pillage of candelabras and jeweled chalices.
Aelfheah turned out not to be the render-unto-Caesar type — or at least, not unto Ragnar — and stubbornly refused to raise his own ransom or to permit one to be paid for him. Seven months on into his captivity, some ill-disciplined Vikingers with their blood (and blood alcohol) up for an Easter pillage just decided to get rid of him — as detailed in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which also helpfully provides us the date:
1012. Here in this year, there came to London town Ealdorman Eadric and all the foremost councillors of the English race, ordained and lay, before Easter — that Easter Day was on the 13 April. And they were there until after Easter, until all the tax was paid — that was 8 thousand pounds.
What we have here is the unprincipled nobleman Eadric Streona — destined for an Executed Today entry of his own — celebrating Christ’s resurrection by squeezing hard-pressed Londoners for the Danegeld needed to buy off Thorkell’s rampaging army. And beside that in the ledger, a vicar declines to save his own life at the cost of incrementing his flock’s suffering. The ransom-refusing Aelfheah is a patron saint of kidnap victims; he ought to be taxpayer ombudsman, too.
Then on Saturday the raiding-army became much stirred up against the bishop, because he did not want to offer them any money, and forbade that anything might be granted in return for him. Also they were very drunk, because there was wine brought from the south. Then they seized the bishop, led him to their ‘hustings’ on the Saturday in the octave of Easter, and then pelted him there with bones and the heads of cattle; and one of them struck him on the head with the butt of an axe, so that with the blow he sank down and his holy blood fell on the earth, and sent forth his holy soul to God’s kingdom. And in the morning the bishops [of Dorchester and of London] Eadnoth and Aelfhun and the inhabitants of the town took up the holy body, and carried it to London with all honour and buried it in St. Paul’s minster, and there now [i.e., to this day] God reveals the holy martyr’s powers.
Aelfheah was canonized by Gregory VII in 1078 — and was one of the rare clerics of the Anglo-Saxon era still officially revered after the Norman conquest.* It is said that Thomas a Becket had just prayed to Aelfheah before he too attained his predecessor’s martyrdom.
On this date in 1560 the second Baron de Castelnau, Jean Boileau, was beheaded as a Huguenot traitor. His was one of the opening casualties of France’s devastating Wars of Religion.
We find Castelnau’s end before war began, when the Huguenot party — although it had been pressed sorely enough for martyr-making in the years of the Reformation — was perhaps not yet quite steeled for the measure of purposeful violence it would require to conquer state power. After the events in this post, the great Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny would remonstrate at a royal Council of Notables protesting the loyalty of the realm’s Protestant subjects. Two years later, he was commanding rebels in the field; a decade later, he would be murdered in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.
“Rashly designed and feebly executed,”* the plan of these 1560 pre-rebellion Huguenots was to tilt France’s religious policy by muscling out the top Catholic.
Considering the new king’s youth and Guise’s prestige, here was the potential to lock in for decades to come a situation intolerable to France’s Protestants. (In actual fact, Francis did not live to see 1561 and the country soon fell into civil war … but the characters in this post did not have the benefit of hindsight.)
So the muscling-out plan was born: the Amboise conspiracy. Named for the castle where the attempt was unsuccessfully executed, this plot aimed to seize the Duke of Guise by main force and begin forcing a more satisfactory policy direction on the malleable sovereign.
This scheme became very widely known among Protestant nobles and even bourgeois, who variously signed on or demurred; no surprise, someone in the ever-widening circle of confidantes eventually leaked it to the court. Guise quietly made ready the castle at Amboise to repel the putsch, and when the attempt was made in mid-March it was not the Catholics but the attacking Huguenots who were surprised and routed. Over 1,000 men involved in the attempt were slaughtered in the ensuing days — by the rope, the sword, or the waters of the Loire. Its chief architect, La Renaudie, was killed in the skirmishes but his corpse was still posthumously mutilated.
Castelnau’s beheading is foregrounded
The Lord Castelnau’s detail for the conspiracy was to seize the nearby Chateau Noizay. He did so only to discover himself in a most embarrassing position when his comrades were crushed. The Guise-allied young Duke of Nemours persuaded Castelnau to surrender under safe conduct:
“Lay down your arms then,” said Nemours, “and if you wish to address the king as becomes a faithful subject, I promise you, upon my faith, to enable you to speak to the king and to bring you back in safety.”
Castelnau, in consequence, surrendered the castle of Noizai to the Duke of Nemours, who took an oath and signed it, that no harm should happen to him or his followers. They went together to Amboise, where the unfortunate baron found that the promise which had been made him was not binding, for the Duke of Nemours had exceeded his orders.
Castelnau’s bravery did not forsake him on the scaffold, where he died a martyr to his religion; the Duke of Nemours felt very indignant at the circumstance, as he had given his signature, which tormented him probably much more than it would have done if his word alone had been passed. (Source)
This traitorous conspiracy — and the ferocity of its destruction — helped to initiate the ensuing years‘ tit-for-tat confessional violence that plunged France headlong into the Wars of Religion (and got Guise himself assassinated in 1563). “A morbid desire to witness the shedding of blood seized upon society,” one historian wrote. “D’Aubigne the eminent historian of the French Reformation, was an eye-witness of such incidents, and though but ten years of age, swore like young Hannibal before his father, to devote his life to vengeance of such atrocities.”
On this date in 1558, Protestant Cuthbert Simson or Simpson was burned at Smithfield — having withstood harrowing torture in the Tower of London.
As deacon of a secret congregation during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary, Simson bore the dangerous responsibility of keeping membership rolls. When he was arrested as a heretic and a traitor, he was subjected to “enhanced interrogation” in an effort to obtain the identities of the whole coterie.
Protestant hagiographer John Foxe recorded an alleged last letter that Simson sent to his friends from captivity (updated to present-day English from the glorious original), describing what happened after he, Simson, refused interrogators’ demand that he begin naming names.
I was set in an engine of iron, for the space of three hours as I judged. After that, they asked me if I would tell them. I answered as before. Then I was loosed, and carried to my lodging again. On the Sunday after, I was brought into the same place again before the lieutenant, being also constable, and the recorder of London, and they examined me. As before I had said I answered. Then the lieutenant sware by God, I should tell. Then did they bind my two forefingers together, and put a small arrow betwixt them, and drew it through so fast that the blood followed, and the arrow brake.
1563 woodcut of Cuthbert Simson’s torture. (Source)
Then they racked me twice. After that was I carried to my lodging again; and ten days after, the lieutenant asked me if I would not confess that which before they had asked me. I said I had said as much as I would. Then five weeks after, he sent me unto the high priest, where I was greatly assaulted; and at whose hand I received the pope’s curse, for bearing witness of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And thus I commend you unto God, and to the word of His grace with all them that unfeignedly call upon the name of Jesus; desiring God, or His endless mercy, through the merits of His dear Son Jesus Christ, to bring us all to His everylasting kingdom. Amen. I praise God for His great mercy shewed upon us. Sing Hosanna unto the Highest, with me Cuthbert Simson. God forgive me my sins. I ask all the world forgiveness, and I do forgive all the world; and thus I leave this world, in hope of a joyful resurrection.
Two associates, Hugh Fox and John Davenish, suffered at Smithfield with Simson.
The small Baltic state had won a two-decade interwar independence rudely terminated by Soviet occupation in 1940 under the carving-up done by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Moscow did not have long to enjoy its mastery of the place before Germany’s invasion swapped one occupation for the other.
German mastery appeared the more congenial than Russian,* and vice versa: Tallinn-born Nazi race theorist Alfred Rosenberg celebrated “the true culture bearer for Europe … the Nordic race. Great heroes, artists and founders of states have grown from this blood. It built the massive fortresses and sacred cathedrals. Nordic blood composed and created those works of music which we revere as our greatest revelations. … Germany is Nordic, and the Nordic element has had an effect, type forming, also upon the western, Dinaric and east Baltic races.”**
Once Germany was pushed back out by the Red Army in 1944 there were thousands of Estonian fighting-men prepared to bear arms against the new-old boss: one part a desperate hope of resuming the pre-war independence, two parts fatalistic principle. “We understood that it is better to die in the forest with a weapon in your hands than in a Soviet camp,” an ex-Forest Brother pensioner told the New York Times in 2003.
For a few years** after World War II, the harassment of Forest Brothers pricked Soviet authority, but as elsewhere in the Baltics the contest was impossibly unequal for guerrillas far from any hope of aid in a post-Yalta world. Ants the Terrible was captured in 1949 by which time the movement, ruthlessly hunted, was waning away. It was finally stamped out in the early 1950s, but in the post-Soviet Estonia — independent once again — these resisters have been belatedly celebrated as patriots.
** From Rosenberg’s magnum opus, The Myth of the Twentieth Century. It’s not all sunshine for the eastern Baltic race in Rosenberg’s cosmology; “mixed as it is with a Mongol element,” these types are “pliant clay either in the hands of Nordic leadership or under Jewish and Mongol tyrants. [The eastern Baltic] sings and dances, but as easily murders and ravages.”
† One of the last Forest Brothers in the field, August Sabbe, was only caught in 1978 at the age of 69. He died in the arrest, either murdered by his KGB pursuers or resolutely quick-witted enough to drown himself to escape interrogation.
On this date in 1524, the first Reformation martyr of Switzerland was beheaded in Lucerne.
Klaus Hottinger (English Wikipedia entry | German), a cobbler by trade, was among Zurich’s early radical reformers — the folks impatient enough for ecclesiastical change to go looking for provocative transgressions.
On March 9, 1522 — two years to the day before his martyrdom — Hottinger was among several Zurich denizens who calculatedly broke the Lenten fast by gobbling sausages at a printer‘s home. History charmingly designates this event “the Affair of the Sausages”. It was scandalous precisely because Zwingli, a pastor, made no attempt to enforce the Church’s fasting edict on his fellows, and then defended the carnivores.
This sort of behavior marked an important cleavage with Luther, both tactically and theologically. Luther certainly agreed with Zwingli that meat was not forbidden Christians, and even that believers ought to assert this right forcefully when bullied:
you must in no wise allow yourself to be drawn away from the liberty in which God has placed you, but do just the contrary to spite him, and say: Because you forbid me to eat meat, and presume to turn my liberty into law, I will eat meat in spite of you. (Fourth Invocavit sermon)
But still, Luther — strenuously at work in this period to dissociate his own cause from rebellion — would have his followers pick their battles. Does going out of your way to beef over the meat thing help or hinder the cause?
There are some who are still weak in faith, who ought to be instructed, and who would gladly believe as we do. But their ignorance prevents them, and if this were faithfully preached to them, as it was to us, they would be one with us. Toward such well-meaning people we must assume an entirely different attitude from that which we assume toward the stubborn. We must bear patiently with them and not use our liberty, since it brings no peril or harm to body or soul, nay, rather is salutary, and we are doing our brothers and sisters a great service besides. But if we use our liberty without need, and deliberately cause offense to our neighbor, we drive away the very one who in time would come to our faith.
Hottinger wasn’t the bearing patiently type. As if the sausages weren’t enough, our enragee ratcheted up the deliberate offense in 1523 with an iconoclastic strike against a roadside crucifix.
This stunt got him exiled from Zurich and put his sacrilege show on the road. As it transpired, not every canton was as easygoing as Zurich.